At Singapore Parley, Defense Secretary Decries Communist China’s ‘Coercion and Bullying’ of American Allies 

He endorses Washington’s vision of a ‘free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific within a world of rules and rights’ as the best course to counter increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region.

AP/Vincent Thian
The secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, June 3, 2023. AP/Vincent Thian

SINGAPORE — The secretary of defense, General Lloyd Austin, vowed Saturday that Washington would not stand for any “coercion and bullying” of its allies and partners by China, while assuring Beijing that America remains committed to maintaining the status quo on Taiwan and would prefer dialogue over conflict.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual forum bringing together top defense officials, diplomats and leaders at Singapore, the defense secretary lobbied for support for Washington’s vision of a “free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific within a world of rules and rights” as the best course to counter increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region.

America has been expanding its own activities around the Indo-Pacific to counter sweeping territorial claims from China, including regularly sailing through and flying over the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea.

“We are committed to ensuring that every country can fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” General Austin said at the forum hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. “And every country, large or small, must remain free to conduct lawful maritime activities.”

He noted that the U.S. had provided millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine during the height of the pandemic and is regularly involved in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance efforts in the region. 

He said it is working to combat climate change, illegal fishing and ensure that supply chains do not suffer disruptions — ticking off many issues of importance to Asian-Pacific nations.

“We’re doubling down on our alliances and partnerships,” he said.

America is also committed to deterring North Korea’s missile threat and China’s claims on the island democracy of Taiwan, which Beijing says is its territory, General Austin said, adding that Washington has been stepping up defense planning, coordination and training with partner nations in the region.

“To be clear, we do not seek conflict or confrontation,” he said. “But we will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion.”

Underscoring General Austin’s words, an American guided-missile destroyer and a Canadian frigate sailed Saturday through the Taiwan Strait, “waters where high-seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law,” the American 7th Fleet said. There was no immediate word of a Chinese response.

At Singapore, Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng, a senior member of the Chinese delegation accompanying the defense minister, General Li Shangfu, accused Austin of “overtly or covertly making false accusations against China” in his address.

Speaking with reporters after Austin spoke, General Jing alleged America has been “deceiving and exploiting” Asia-Pacific nations to advance its own self-interests to preserve “its dominant position” in the region.

He suggested that Washington has been holding on to alliances that are “remnants of the Cold War” and establishing new pacts, like the AUKUS agreement with Britain and Australia and the “Quad” grouping with Australia, India and Japan “to divide the world into ideologically-driven camps and provoke confrontation.”

General Jing, who took no questions, said that by contrast, “China is committed to the region’s development and prosperity.”

General Austin sought to assure China that America remained “deeply committed” to the longstanding one-China policy, which recognizes Beijing as the government of China but allows informal relations with Taiwan, and continues to “categorically oppose unilateral changes to the status quo from either side.”

He added that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had served to underline how dangerous the world would be if big countries were able to “just invade their peaceful neighbors with impunity.”

“Conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable,” Austin said. “Deterrence is strong today — and it’s our job to keep it that way. The whole world has a stake in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

General Jing accused America of hollowing out the one-China policy, accusing Washington of supporting Taiwanese separatists without citing any evidence, and reiterating Beijing’s claim that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s sovereign territory.”

“There’s no room for us to concede or compromise,” he said.

He added that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and the adjacent waters.”

General Li, who became China’s defense minister in March, declined General Austin’s invitation to talk on the sidelines of the conference, though the two did shake hands before sitting down at opposite sides of the same table together as the forum opened Friday.

General Austin said this was not enough.

“A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement,” he said.

General Li, who was named defense minister in March, is under American sanctions that are part of a broad package of measures against Russia — but predate its invasion of Ukraine — that were imposed in 2018 over General Li’s involvement in China’s purchase of combat aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.

The sanctions, which broadly prevent General Li from doing business in the United States, do not prevent him from holding official talks, American defense officials have said.

It was not clear whether General Li, who is to address the forum Sunday morning, was in the room while Austin talked. He did join the American defense secretary and others later for a ministerial roundtable.

Since 2021, American officials say, China has declined or failed to respond to more than a dozen requests from the U.S. Defense Department to talk with senior leaders, as well as multiple requests for standing dialogues and working-level engagements.

Associated Press

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